Jack remembers the family of Jenny and Arthur Ackermann

by Jon Claerbout
(claerbout @ stanford . edu)

I would like to pass along to you some of my memories of the family of Jenny and Arthur Ackermann.

One day I said to my mother Nory, "I've gone to Europe and they don't say 'Aaackerman', they say 'Ahkerman', 'Jenny Ahkermann'."

Nory says, "What? Noooo! Not 'Ahkerman', it's 'Aaaakerman!"

So I say, "Look Mom, your dad's a German, right? In Germany they say, "Ahkerman".

Mom says, "No."
I say, "Why not?"
She says, "That sounds too Dutchy."

I hope you'll all feel free to interrupt me, or correct my memories, or add any stories of your own as we go along.

I used to enjoy going to Spud's farm. In my earliest memories the Meylink girls are putting doll clothes on their cats. Later I remember the wedding on the farm in the front yard. Not sure I'll ever remember if it was Ruth or Carol who got married, but I never forget when the groom was supposed to be saying "I do", all I could hear was "moo, moooo, mooo". Later Spud said he had put the hay just outside the fence. He was planning to throw the hay over the fence to the cows just before the ceremony, but he forgot, so there were the cows on one side of the fence and the hay on the other side so we heard the cows complaining all thru the wedding ceremony.

The most amazing thing I learned about the Meylinks was about five years ago. I learned that Lyd was a saint. Really, Lyd was a saint! We Protestants don't have very many saints, so I was quite surprised to learn this, but I got it from an impeccable source, our dear aunt Ev. Even in her last years at Pine Haven I never dared talk to Ev about politics or current events because she was always up to date and knew more about it than I did. She was the most informed and authoritative voice in our clan. So I asked Ev how she knew that Lyd was a saint. Aunt Ev explained to me that many years ago, her sister Lyd got a new dress. There wasn't a lot of money in the Ackermann household, so new dresses didn't arrive there very often. The dress was kind of a basket-weave material. After a while Aunt Ev asked if she might wear Lyd's new dress, and of course Lyd allowed her to wear the new dress. Then Ev made a terrible mistake. She went for a ride on a bicycle wearing Lyd's new dress. The bar on the bicycle stretched and unwove the fabric at the hem of the new dress. The new dress was completely ruined! Ev was so horrified I could tell that she still hadn't fully recovered 75 years later when she told me this story. Dear aunt Lyd had not one single word of reproach. She did everything she could to calm and relieve a tearful Ev.

Ev and my mother Nory were in Pine Haven together. Eunie would often come to visit. On my summer vacations I would drive them to the cottage. One day we even knocked on the door of the farm house where they were born. The owner gave us a tour. This farm is south from Cedar Grove about a half mile past Amsterdam road across from where there is now an auto repair shop.

The house and barn are on the side of a hill. My mother was born in the shack that is now a chicken coop. The farm house you see now was built later. I still remember Gramma Ackermann telling how one fearfully cold night she held one sick child all night half way inside the oven. That child might have been Lyd, in the same chicken coop my mom was later born.

Nory and Helen were about the same age, and they liked to play together in the barn and run around outdoors together in their bare feet. You might not believe this but Nory told me that she and Helen had fun stepping in cow pies. "The squishy ones," she said, "were nice and warm."

My mom went thru a time machine. She stopped calling me Jack and started calling me Pa. Yesterday she called me Louie. We were at Pine Haven. A friendly dog, too friendly, came up to us. Nory says, "Behave selfy. Behave Selfy, there's girls in the house." "Behave selfy", I heard that a lot while I was growing up. Did it start from Louie? or from Jenny?

The front of the Ackermann barn is at the level of the highway. The back side of the barn is one story up in the air. There was pretty often some competition between Louie and Ev. Louie never had a brother to tussle with, but Ev seemed willing to fill the role of a brother. Ev wanted to learn to drive a car but Louie refused to teach her. But Ev was no dummy. She just watched closely what Louie did while he drove the car. After a while Ev figured she could drive a car too. The unforgetable day came when Ev drove the car off the road, across the barnyard and into the barn, and very nearly out the other side of the barn which would have been a one-story drop to the ground.

I can't imagine what it is like to be the only boy in a house of five girls, but Louie knew and relished his playing the part. I remember Louie at his house in Cedar Grove saying, "What the Dixie? I'm not fat. It's just my chest falling down," he would say pushing his chest back up where it belonged.

Louie took the train to Denver so see his son Carl in the military. When Louie discovered darkies on the train he just had to sit down with them and talk. The word "darkies" is no longer considered to be a polite word, though it was so at that time. Nowdays we're supposed to say Afro-Americans. Anyway, when Louie got home he'd just had to tell us of his adventures, everything what he said, and everything what they said, and then he'd tell us how white their teeth were and he'd make us all laugh. The truth is that we stood in awe of Louie. The rest of us would have been too timid to talk to the darkies on the train.

The girls seemed to feel that Louie often went a little too far, and maybe he did. Louie got me in some hot water while I was on my honeymoon. I'm going to tell you that story a little later.

When I got to college I studied Geophysics so I couldn't keep quiet when Louie started telling me about dowsing for water pipes. He said you could use willow twigs, but bent welding rods worked even better. To prove it he said he'd found the water lines leading into his house. I tried to tell Louie that whenever you backfill a trench, you can never really get the ground level enough. I also looked at his garden and saw a streak where the his vegetables were a little weak so I told Louie that's where his water mains were buried -- the good surface soil hadn't been properly restored to the trench.

Louie told my kids it never hurt him being a little pigeon-toed -- by Dixie, he got plenty of girls too., he said. I heard that even in pain in the hospital nearing his death bed Louie still enjoyed humoring the nurses.

I remember the TeRondes from Milwaukee and also from Oostburg. In Milwaukee they had a Victrola. In my memory there were only two records. I can still sing one of them, "Meet me in Saint Louie, Louie, meet me at the fair..." I sure loved turning the crank on that Victrola. In their basement I rode a tricycle hundreds of circles around the furnace. My TeRonde memories from Oostburg run deeper and further back. In the beginning they had a one room shack back in the woods. The room had a teeny addition which must have been about six feet square -- big enough for a kid's bunk bed and that's all. My dear Aunt Helen invited me to join this little paradise and play with Russ and Rae. Three kids fit in one bunk bed you know, feet to feet. There was no electricity. Instead of a refrigerator, they dug a hole in the ground which was always pretty cool. In the hole was a box for milk, butter, and cheese. A few years later I have fabulous memories of the Morning Star cottage where I played with my Kruenen and TeRonde cousins. Many years later when Aunt Helen came to Pine Haven I sent her a letter thanking her for my fine memory of sharing bunk beds with Russ and Rae -- for all the fun I had there. She sent me a picture of Russ, Rae, and me at the Morning Star Cottage. Sadly, dear Aunt Helen passed on quickly, before I had the opportunity to drive her here to our Cedar Grove cottage.

The funniest story I can tell about my mother Nory she told me about 6 years ago, about 5 years after my father John died. Before they were married, Nory had opened a little beauty shop in Sheboygan Falls. My dad worked in the Kohler factory. As the economy declined in the great depression, they laid off the single guys first. So there was my dad without a job. Well, Nory hired him in her beauty shop!! They never told me that before! So that's how she got him. She also had this to say, "he was awfully good looking, and the best thing about it was, he didn't seem to know it!" She also said, "He couldn't cut hair very well, but the ladies didn't seem to mind at all!"

Last in the family was little Eunie. She was only 3 years old when Arthur was stricken leaving Jenny and the girls to run the farm. Maybe I shouldn't repeat this, but Ev told me Louie was too small to saddle a horse. Ron told us Louie had a dent in his skull from a horse kick.

The back end of the Ackerman farm touched a corner of the back end of the Claerbout farm with its 5 boys, but to hear my folks tell it there was no connection. What happened on Sauk trail road was a world apart from what happened on highway 32. They went to different schools and didn't notice each other each until much later. They both said that.

I still remember a family gathering on the farm of Eunie and Fred. The women all in the kitchen, the men all in the front yard smoking cigars. Us kids playing in the barn building hide outs, building with hay bales.

A couple years ago Eunie explained to me something about family life that I never knew. She told me this little rhyme which I repeat.

	"A son is a son till he takes a wife,
	a daughter is a daughter,
	all of your life."

This little rhyme explained something that has been bothering me in my life and I guess it explains some Ackerman history too. Anyway, here we are today, the Ackerman clan all gathered together while I believe the Claerbout clan has not gathered since I left home fifty years ago. We have no lovely Claerbout family portrait like that wonderful Jenny and Arthur Ackermann family portrait you all know.

Now I'd like to say a few words about Jenny. Every Sunday we would drive to Cedar Grove and visit some relative, either on my mom's side or my dad's side and after that we would stop in "just a minute" to see Jenny. That minute often turned into a light supper. She would cut the toasted cheese sandwich into "tracks" for me. Dessert would be sliced banana doused in orange juice. The radio would be turned on to Walter Winchell and then to Gabriel Heater. None of us will forget Grandma Ackerman's candy jar. The outhouse in back, the creek, the water pumps outside and in, the two ticking alarm clocks, the sewing machine we could run the treadle, the washing machine we could operate. I must have been there a lot. I had my first glass of wine there -- Mogan David jewish sacrament wine. One of Grandma Ackermann's stories puzzled me my whole life, and I've only this year come to understand it. Her story went something like this, "These people came into the church; they picked up their hymnals, and then they jumped out the church window and ran away!" This past week I was finally able to put this story in context. I'll tell it, but I need to tell another story first about Louie.

I married a Jewish lady. I don't know if Louie knew she was Jewish. We married in Boston and we were on our way to California, stopped at the cottage. Louie was sitting right there on the couch and he says something like this, "I don't know why I have to write two N's at the end of my name AckermaNN. So I got to leaving off the last N". Then one day, somebody says to Louie, "hey, only one N? that's the Yiddish way of spelling it". So Louie says he figured, "I better put both N's on Ackermann." Oh, oh! Was I ever in trouble with my new Jewish wife -- and on my honeymoon too!

Ronnie says: Dad and I worked one summer at Gilson Foundry in Port Washington. At the office after I registered to work they said, "How come you spell your name with two N's and your dad only with one N?" My dad explained it. He said, "He's got more time than I do."

This was not the end of the story. As the years went by, I tried to check up on the spelling of Ackerman. Was it really true that Jewish Ackermans have only one N? I found it is. That's not the end of the story either. A couple years ago we were digging around the cottage and came up with Nory Ackerman's report card. Guess what? You won't guess. Jenny Ackermann had to sign that report card once a month. Guess how she spelled it? Half the time with one N and half the time with two. Even more surprising to me, which I just learned last week, is I found the annual report of the Calvary Presbyterian Church of 1941. Included is the "envelope report". Hey! I can see exactly how much each one of the Claerbout brothers gave to church that year! But the first name on the alphabetical list is Jenny Ackerman. How many N's in Ackerman in the church envelope report? Just one. One N. That's my way of thinking my Grandmother gave me permission in advance to marry a Jewish Lady. That, and the Mogan David Jewish Wine she introduced me to.

I haven't said anything about my Grandfather Arturo Ackermann who being German surely knew the difference between one N and two. He was gone before I was born. Ev told me Jenny and Arthur were very knowledgeable in the ways of the world. They even got a special newspaper all the way from Madison which they would discuss as a way to educate the whole family. One story of Arturo that I must have heard from Ev is this: One day Arturo got a letter in the mail from Germany, a letter from the Kaiser himself. The Kaiser was of the opinion that Arturo should go back to Germany and help him fight World War I. This was very disturbing news. So Arturo went to the county court house to ask if he really had to go back to Germany. They said no, his American citizenship application was far enough along. He did not have to go back to Germany. Jenny and Arthur surely talked about Germany and the name Ahkermann, and the difference between one N and two.

There is only one more story I would like to tell, but it could get me in trouble, just like Louie got me in trouble with my wife, so I better read this one and hope for the best. I was one of Jenny's pall bearers so I won't forget carrying her out of the Reformed Church. Those steep steps aren't there any longer. We Claerbouts went to the Reformed Church in the Falls, but I kept hearing stories about the Presbyterian Church in Cedar Grove, and it was always the north-side church they talked about. The Calvary church up on the hill was built about the time my folks got married and moved to the Sheboygan Falls, so I kind of forgot about that church on the hill and just thought about the two churches along the road to the cottage. So one day I stopped the car there at the north-side church and found a back door open so I took my mom inside. I was disappointed. She said she didn't recognize anything. In those days her mind was starting to weaken. The next year I stopped there with Eunie but all the doors were locked so we didn't get in. Aunt Ev could have explained a lot to me but she never did. I was trying to figure out, were they Presbyterians or were they Reformed? and why? I once heard grandma Jenny tell my folks something like, "They went into the church, picked up their hymnals, and jumped out the windows!" When I was 13-14 years old I thought about growing up to be a theologian so this was one of the first things I ought to figure out.

I never got the story straight until last week reading an article from an old copy of the Sheboygan Press. If you want to read some hot headed remarks, you can have a look at these clippings. Talking about this subject has split up more families I believe than did the Kohler strike. So that's why they didn't talk about it and maybe I better shut up right now. But my curiosity was aroused and I was pleased to figure it out at last. I'll take a chance making this long story short by saying this. If you start by asking whether Noah's ark had kangaroos on it, you soon get around to to asking about the virgin birth. I won't go near that. The newspaper says the minister of the new church, Rev deWaard said, "While I am ousted [from the old church] there are preachers preaching communism in the Milwaukee presbytery." So you see, they really did live in interesting times -- it just didn't seem that way to us kids. Some things you just don't explain to your kids, it seems.

Finally I knew the whole story. They went to the north side Presbyterian church until the new orthodox church was built about the time I was born. Then they switched to the new church, the Calvary Presbyterian church on the hill. Later Grandma switched to the Reformed Church because it was a shorter walk on her aging legs.

Eunie tells me that Louie would write up a little speech for the family gatherings. Then when the time came he would be too shy to read his little speech. Somebody else would have to read it for him. Hard to imagine Louie being shy. If anybody can find any of Louie's speeches, I sure would enjoy seeing a copy.